City Hub

Building safety on the edge

Cracks, unsafe balconies and toxic foundations render buildings uninhabitable - like these flats in Erskineville. Photo: Alec Smart

BY ALEC SMART

Residents of a four-year-old building in Sydney’s inner-southern Rosebery have been warned not to let their children play on the balconies, or allow more than three people to stand on them, after safety investigators found they were of “inadequate strength”.

Otto Rosebery, an ‘island site’ of 298 multi-storey apartments bordered by four streets – Queen, Mentmore, Cressy and Rothschild – failed an inspection into the integrity of the building by Broune Group, which specialises in investigations into structural defects.
Broune’s inspector found the aluminium posts that support the balcony balustrades and window glazing did “not comply with the requirements of the Building Code of Australia and Australian Standards”.

Strata management have since issued an urgent safety latter to residents warning “all possible precautions should be taken to avoid purposeful or accidental leaning” on the balcony balustrades, because they are “structurally defective”. Additional warning posters were taped onto balcony doors.
Builders Collective of Australia president Phil Dwyer told The New Daily that the strata management “wouldn’t have put out that notice without justification”.

Drama harmer
Otto’s realtors, SW Group, describe the apartments complex as “a brilliant master-planned community, featuring a mix of brand new 1, 2 and 3 bedroom light-filled apartments .. [and] .. designed to bring the spectacular views.. flooding into your home. Otto’s views are extensive, panoramic and truly dramatic…”
Except the drama is substantially increased if residents fall off their balconies trying to appreciate those views.

A letter sent to Otto apartment owners, from PRDnationwide Norwest real estate, concerning possible legal proceedings, said the owners’ corporation would be “notifying the builder and developer … and, to the extent necessary, seeking to include the balustrade system within the existing Supreme Court proceedings relating to defects”.
Because Otto is four years old it is within the statutory six years warranty that covers defective buildings in NSW after completion.

Otto was built by Icon Co., the same company behind the infamous Opal Tower in Olympic Park in which cracks appeared on Xmas Eve 2018 and residents were hastily evacuated for their own safety. In January 2019, reports emerged that horizontal support beams in the structure were possibly “not strong enough to hold precast concrete panels installed on top of them.”
TV program A Current Affair broadcast footage obtained from a subcontractor alleging structurally unsafe materials were used in the construction of the residential high-rise. Concrete slabs, used for the hob beams, were severely cracked and patched up with filler instead of being replaced.

The Opal Tower debacle still drags on: over 150 of the 392 apartments, which were purchased for between $800,000 to $2.5 million, remain uninhabited.
Just last week, on 6 October, the NSW Government’s Sydney Olympic Park Authority (SOPA) subpoenaed Icon Co. and developer Ecove into litigation. Which effectively postpones a multi-million-dollar class action launched by Opal residents in July.
Documents lodged with NSW Supreme Court reveal Opal Tower apartment owners are suing the NSW Government and SOPA, the owner of the land on which the Opal Tower sits, for compensation. However, they have to wait until the NSW Govt deals with Icon Co. and Ecove before the compensation claims are heard, to determine allegations of negligence and safety violations.

Lack of regulatory oversight
The dangerous apartments debacle continues an emerging trend in Australian construction that critics allege is attributable to reduced safety inspections, shoddy workmanship and the fast-tracking of high-rise development to meet housing demands.
Several other high-profile cases of new apartments too dangerous to live in have raised public concern that there is a general lack of regulatory oversight in Australia’s building industry.

These include Mascot Towers, where in June City Hub reported that 122 residential units and seven commercial enterprises were urgently evacuated on June 14 after structural cracks appeared in the basement.
Although vibrations from a neighbouring construction were suggested as a possible cause for the cracks, contractors on that project released a pre-construction inspection report from 2016 that showed the same cracks were visible, which were by then ‘several years’ old.
The repairs are expected to exceed $20 million and likely to be billed to the residents.

In Zetland, 30 loft-style apartments at Garland Lofts on Gadigal Avenue were quietly abandoned over severe water and fire safety defects.
Marketed as “New York style loft apartments”, occupants were evacuated in November 2018 and there is ongoing litigation between multiple parties over who’s responsible.

Meanwhile, over 100 purchasers of apartments in Erskineville, who were prevented from moving into their new homes after the building complex failed safety standards, are still unable to settle in. Completed in May 2018, the 109 Sugarcube apartments and the 18 Honeycomb terraces alongside remain fenced-off to owners.
Marketed as “amongst the most desirable residences ever to grace Erskineville’s leafy village streets”, the ground below is reportedly too dangerous to permit habitation. Manufacturing left behind a plethora of hazardous waste on the land, including contaminated groundwater, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and asbestos.

Developers, Golden Rain, are negotiating with City of Sydney over non-compliance with the development consent conditions on detoxification of the former Ashmore industrial estate.
A City of Sydney spokesperson told City Hub: “We will continue to work with the developer until we are satisfied they’ve taken all necessary steps to ensure the site is suitable for residential purposes … as well as avoiding any ongoing onerous management requirements being placed on future residents.”

Further afield, in Melbourne, Australia’s second-tallest building, the 319-metre Australia 108 building in Melbourne’s Southbank is reportedly riddled with cracks. Unusually, residents began moving into the 1105-apartment skyscraper in 2018, whilst it was still under construction, although it’s not scheduled for completion until 2020.
In April 2015 the 100th floor penthouse, reportedly the highest home in the southern hemisphere, sold for A$25 million – an Australian record – to a businessman based in China.

Occupants of Australia 108, which was reduced from 108 to 100 levels after concerns it would breach the airspace of Essendon Airport, have since complained of loud noise, construction defects, power outages, windows that won’t open and wall cracks.
A spokesperson for Multiplex, the primary builders, told Southbank Local News: “Like any building, Australia 108 has been designed to move in windy conditions and the noise being generated is indicative of the building adjusting to the prevailing weather conditions and behaving as it should.”

Standards must improve
National building standards across Australia need to be improved, because it will improve investor confidence in the Australian property market and reassure purchasers that their home won’t become a liability, where their children fall off unsafe balconies or the buildings themselves collapse.
A report from former Prime Minister’s department head Peter Shergold and industry expert Bronwyn Weir in February 2018 warned: “Until relatively recently, there has been almost no effective regulatory oversight of the commercial building industry by regulators. Those involved in high-rise construction have been left largely to their own devices.”

A team of University of New South Wales building industry experts suggested increasing transparency around construction quality for purchasers, based on the current five-star rating system used for regulating car sales. This was previously implemented in the 1990s, but failed due to a lack of funding under former New South Wales Labor Premier, Bob Carr.

In June 2019, Federal Industry Minister Karen Andrews attended an emergency meeting with federal and state governments, where they agreed national building standards should be implemented.
And yet, just weeks earlier, the minister responsible for the NSW building industry, Kevin Anderson, said there was “no great cause for alarm” about building quality in the state and no need to rush into reforms.

The NSW Govt is in consultation over joint-funding of the proposed reform package, which would include a new registration scheme for building designers and engineers and the appointment of a Building Commissioner ‘watchdog’ to oversee high rise developments.
Thereafter, any company, contractor or individual involved in the design, construction and acquisition of materials is expected to be qualified to New South Wales standards, which will presumably improve standards.

However, the NSW Govt has not confirmed whether it will repeal the NSW system of private certification, nor the exemptions from mandatory insurance for buildings over three storeys.
Of most concern to purchasers is the need to extend the statutory warranty periods of only two years for minor defects and six years for major defects. Otherwise, residents face the bill for repairs, and that can cost millions; unacceptable if the dodgy developers currently prevalent in the construction industry continue cutting corners and passing the buck.

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